Truth and Falsehood: Iconographies during the Dreyfus Affair

The Dreyfus Affair has often been referred to as the most notorious miscarriage of justice in French history. Upon being falsely convicted of passing military secrets to the Germans, a Jewish artillery captain in the French army by the name of Alfred Dreyfus was court- martialed, found guilty of treason and sent to live behind bars on Devil’s Island. In what later became known as the Dreyfus affair, new evidence came to light, suggesting that Major Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy was in fact the true perpetrator. However, Esterhazy managed to escape justice after being found not guilty and later fled the country. This affair greatly divided France into dreyfusards, supporters of Dreyfus, and anti-dreyfusards, those who believed he was guilty.

“A profoundly visual event”

Despite the abundance of words in the form of articles, published evidence and petitions, the Dreyfus affair was “a profoundly visual event” (Everton, 2012). Everything from postcards to caricatures were peppered around France, appearing in the streets and more prolifically in newspapers. They soon became embedded in the minds of the French, reminding even uncommitted members of the public of what was happening. However, perhaps more importantly, these images served as dreyfusard and antidreyfusard propaganda with the intention of pushing the viewer towards or against a certain side.

Historical, technological and political context

The use of this kind of propaganda was hardly ground-breaking and was in fact already well- established within French historical culture from “Daumier’s Pear King to the petroleuses and parisiennes of the Paris siege and Commune” (Everton, 2010). This is all thanks to the major advances in printing technology towards the end of the nineteenth century coupled with a nationwide mass-circulation press which permitted the fast and wide spreading of these images to become possible. It is also worth noting the 1881 law on the freedom of the press which allowed openly violent, politically rebellious and at times erotic imagery to be published nationwide. These advancements enabled the seeping of the Dreyfus affair from the “realm of the political into everyday life” (Ibid).

The main challenge for caricaturists at the time was “to deploy in new contexts the terms and images already established in dominant culture” so as to make sure that the reader “got the joke” (Childs, 1997). In terms of dreyfusard and antidreyfusard imagery, this meant a mixture of recognizable individuals such as Emile Zola, familiar allegory or just something generally associated with the Affair itself.

The two newspapers arguably most associated with these types of imagery were Psst and Le Sifflet. The first issue of Psst was published on February 5, 1898, just two days before Zola’s trial for slander, based on accusations made in “J’accuse”. Twelve days later, Le Sifflet came into being, with some of the most famous dreyfusard caricaturist’s contributing to its pages, such as Georges Hermann-Paul, Louis Chevalier, and Edouard Couturier. As well as articulating what it meant to be either dreyfusard or antidreyfusard, they explored both sides’ relationship to the concept of truth, which played a major role in the Affair itself. Dreyfusards believed in an objective truth, relying on facts alone, while the antidreyfusards were inclined towards a more subjective truth which relied on personal integrity as opposed to hard evidence.

Truth and Falsehood

What was arguably the most prominent means by which supporters of Dreyfus expressed their beliefs and faith, was the use of the allegorical figure Truth. This was in the form of a nude woman holding a mirror while emerging from a well (Fig.1). It has often been claimed that this figure “was by far the most popular element of Dreyfusard iconography” (Forth, 2004). Her delicate appearance provided a contrast with the “coarse anti-Dreyfusard caricatures”, serving as a “principle iconographic symbol for artists who did not contribute their work to the press and yet sought to incorporate Dreyfusard messages in their art” (Hyman, 1989). While this figure was by no means limited to France alone, it was certainly the most prolific within the country which allowed them to effectively lay claim to it.

(Fig.1.)

Using this allegorical figure, dreyfusard artists were able to express what they perceived to be their own “championing of truth” (Everton, 2010) and the antidreyfusards attempts to quash it, by showing recognizable individuals as either in favour of or hostile to the female Truth.

In this particular image by H.G. Ibels, Esterhazy is shown cowering at the feet of Truth. He was by far the most obvious candidate for showing antidreyfusards as deceitful and fraudulent and was the most prominent character featured in Le Sifflet, appearing in its pages 51 times in total. He is “cadaverously lean” with his “evil appearance [matching] his reprehensible behavior” (Everton, 2010). In other words, he makes the perfect villain. By showing him in this way, it was conveyed to his audience that Truth would eventually come to defeat him and that his lies would hopefully come to light. Perhaps more importantly, this particular image shows that Truth cannot remain hidden indefinitely. This serves to “remind viewers of their own relation to the concept of truth” (Everton, 2012).

Another image often associated with dreyfusard iconography was a cartoon published in Le Sifflet, published on March 18, 1898, entitled “La vérité quand même” (Fig.2). Within the cartoon, two figures are shown to be piling army paraphernalia on the allegorical figure of Truth who is attempting to emerge from the well. These two figures are Ferdinand Walsin- Esterhazy along with president du conseil, Jules Méline.

(Fig.2)

This image sparked a trend within Le Sifflet with subsequent cartoons emerging of Truth defeating Esterhazy four months later. This came after a new investigation by Minister of War, Godefroy Cavaignac, exposed Esterhazy for his crimes. In April 1989, an image of Truth emerging triumphant from her well was published, in the wake of the Cour de Cassation who were beginning their investigation into the Dreyfus affair, allowing transcripts of these sessions to be published in Le Figaro.

Christopher Forth, in a survey of dreyfusard iconography, argues that by showing Truth with recognizable dreyfusards, they become “allegorized” and transformed into “heroic representatives of the universal” (Forth, 2004). This goes both ways with Esterhazy, being the frequent adversary to truth, coming to symbolize dishonesty and deceitfulness, outside any interaction with Truth.

Conclusion

So, to conclude, truth and falsehood iconographies played a huge role in antidreyfusard and particularly dreyfusard propoganda during the Dreyfus Affair. The publishing of these images in newspapers such as Psst! and Le Sifflet was made possible through advancements in printing technology and through the law in 1881 allowing freedom of the press. Using the allegorical figure of Truth, dreyfusards were able to express what they perceived to be their own “championing of truth” (Everton, 2010) while also showing that no matter how hard the anti-dreyfusards may try, the Truth cannot and will not be contained indefinitely.

 

Further Reading:

BARRÉ, R. 1898. “La vérité quand même!”. Le Sifflet.

CHILDS, E., 1997. The Body Impolitic: Censorship and the Caricature of Honore Daumier. Suspended Licence: Censorship and the Visual Arts. 76-77

EVERTON, E., 2012. Scenes of Perception and Revelation: Gender and Truth in Antidreyfusard Caricature. French Historical Studies. 35 (2): 381–417

EVERTON, E., 2010. The Veiled Lady and the Razor: The Visual Language of Truth and Falsehood during the Dreyfus Affair, 1898-1899. 1-16

FORTH, C.E., 2004. The Dreyfus Affair and the Crisis of French Manhood. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 80-81

GEROME, J.L., 1896. La Vérité sortant du puits

HYMAN, P., 1989. The Dreyfus Affair: The Visual and the Historical. The Journal of Modern History. 61 (1), 100

IBELS, H.G., 1898. “Après les fameuses révélations de M. Cavaignac”. Le Sifflet

NIX, E. 2015. What was the Dreyfus affair? [online]. History Stories. Available from: https://www.history.com/news/what-was-the-dreyfus-affair

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